Night sky needs protection from Vancouver’s lights, astronomer says

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      Mark Eburne laments the fact that he has to get away from the city to really see the stars with the naked eye. The amateur astronomer says the bright lights of Vancouver are drowning out the night sky.

      “You don’t see much,” Eburne told the Georgia Straight at a café a few blocks from the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. “You are hard-pressed to see all the stars in the Big Dipper. It’s very hard to see the North Star.”

      Eburne took up astronomy 10 years ago and is a director of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Vancouver Centre. He chairs the group’s light-pollution-abatement committee, which is trying to help people understand the damage outdoor lights are doing at night.

      Eburne feels too much light from street lamps and tall buildings is being directed into the night sky. This can make celestial events such as the annual Leonid meteor shower, which peaks on November 17 and 18 this year, harder to see in Metro Vancouver.

      “It’s all about the curiosity of the night sky,” Eburne said. “People lose that curiosity when they can’t see the night sky. It is simple—it is just too bright here, and it has nothing to do with clouds or air pollution or anything like that.”

      According to Eburne, it boils down to city planning. With the right types of street lamps and dimmers in place, only a fraction of the light ends up travelling into the sky, while the rest is focused on the ground, where it’s needed.

      “Any new light that is installed in Vancouver or anywhere should be a full-cutoff light that would not allow any light to be leaking upwards,” Eburne said. “If we could do that, that would protect what we have today.”

      The International Dark-Sky Association promotes similar views. The U.S.–based organization was founded 22 years ago. Since its inception, it has worked with hundreds of municipalities and other governments to develop lighting regulations that help provide a clear view of the night sky while saving money and protecting the environment.

      “We are not, nor have we ever been, anti–outdoor light,” outreach and education manager Johanna Duffek told the Straight by phone from the organization’s headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. “We are for proper design. This is one of the things the city should always ask itself: ”˜What is it that we are trying to achieve?’”

      Duffek noted that lighting technology is constantly being improved. According to her, retrofitting a city’s street lamps can drastically decrease the amount of light emitted into the sky.

      “More people are understanding the economic value of lighting better, as well as the health and safety benefits of lighting the outdoors better,” Duffek said. “We would just always ask people to light what they need to light. More light is not necessarily better light. But quality lighting is better lighting.”

      One city that has taken this advice to heart is Calgary. In 2002, with the help of government grants for environmentally friendly infrastructure upgrades, the city began to retrofit all of its 85,000 street lamps.

      Troy McLeod, manager of traffic for the City of Calgary, told the Straight that so far 50,000 streetlights have been given flat-lens fixtures, which direct light downward, use less electricity, and cost less to operate.

      “We’ve saved $11 million in energy-consumption reductions,” McLeod said by phone from his office.

      According to McLeod, to date, the retrofitting program has cost the city $5 million. He noted that, aside from the savings, the program has enabled people to see the night sky better.

      “If you are on a hill”¦you can look at some areas [of Calgary] and you would say, ”˜Jeez, there is no street lighting in that area,’” McLeod said. “But in fact there is. You just don’t see the light shining up from the streetlights themselves.”

      The City of Vancouver has no bylaw dealing with the retrofitting of street lamps. But the city’s website states that it follows the “guiding principles” of dark-sky-friendly lighting as much as possible whenever fixtures are replaced.

      City officials say retrofitting tens of thousands of streetlights en masse wouldn’t bring financial savings because, unlike Calgary, Vancouver’s electricity comes from a cheaper and more environmentally friendly source.

      “We don’t have a budget to do them all at once, nor would it be that cost- or environmentally effective to throw out working light bulbs only to replace them,” Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer told the Straight by phone. “So it’s a long, slow process.”

      According to Reimer, the city’s plan is to replace the fixtures on streetlights as they break with flat-glass and LED alternatives that cut down on light pollution.

      “Anytime you can reduce something that is an irritant and increase opportunities for people to participate in things like recreational activities like astronomy or something else, I think it is good,” Reimer said. “But Vancouver is like a jigsaw puzzle, and anytime you sort of take out a piece, you have to think about the impact on the other pieces.”

      As for Eburne, he hopes the city will take on a more comprehensive plan to deal with the light pollution he constantly battles when stargazing.

      “We know that more people are going to live here. We know that more lights are going to be installed. That’s a fact of life,” Eburne said. “But we want to put the right lights in to eliminate or at least manage the light pollution that is growing.”

      Comments

      11 Comments

      Jim Clarke

      Nov 2, 2010 at 3:06pm

      Um, "Royal Astrological Society"?

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      Miranda Nelson

      Nov 2, 2010 at 5:17pm

      Thanks Jim! We've updated the article accordingly.

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      nightskyimager

      Nov 4, 2010 at 1:06am

      It is good to see this news spread to more Vancouverites. The more we educate the public, the faster a change will occur! :)

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      Robert Dick

      Nov 4, 2010 at 5:37am

      I find it interesting that the Vancouver official blames the cheap price of hydro generated electricity for not saving energy. I suspect conservation-oriented citizens might wonder about that logic. The base-load power from Hydro versus fossil fuel are all factored in to the mix by the price we pay. Does Vancouver pay so little for power they can afford to waste it?

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      Jim Ronback

      Nov 5, 2010 at 12:51am

      I'm looking forward to seeing my shadow cast by the Milky Way on clear moonless nights in Metro Vancouver

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      Paul Greenhalgh

      Nov 5, 2010 at 10:45am

      I think that the point that's being missed here. Is that Mr.Eburne isn't asking Vancouver to change all of it's lights at once. But rather as they need to be maintained. When the old grid or light fixtures fail that's the time to change over to the newer more efficient lighting systems. It took us a long long time to install these defunct and glaring lighting systems. So it's going to take some time to convert them over to a much safer, more effective lighting product, such as the Full Cut Off Optic street lights that we're starting to see crop up all over the Fraser Valley. My question is why is Vancouver so slow in following suit?

      These new FCO street lights for example, offer much less glare for drivers, better see-ability of pedestrians and in poor weather the street marking are seen as white rather than black shinny lines. Intersections are much less cluttered as well. Take a drive down Hastings street at night and have a look at how difficult it is to see the traffic lights along that route.

      When the human eye see's a bright object at night, that's the object the focus's on regardless of whether you're looking at it or not. In other words the bright light dominates everything else, creating glare and hard shadows. Making it difficult to see properly in adverse weather conditions.

      Mr.Eburne is doing much more for the safety of society here than he's giving himself credit for. With the above factor's put in place, Astronomy benefit's last. By making things safer and better, less insurance claims are made and slowly but surely we get the night sky back as a benefit for all to enjoy. This isn't just about Astronomy here, it's about creating a safer environment for not only us, but for wild life, flora and fauna.
      I could educate further but this would slowly turn into a novel here.

      I strongly suggest that Vancouver reconsider it's position and start with a program of converting street lights over to the New FCO system as the system requires.

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      Leigh Cummings

      Nov 6, 2010 at 8:51pm

      I agree whole heartedly with Mark Eburne's view and recomendations. Also Paul makes some very good points about the safey factors regarding glare. Also there is also a huge toll on birds which are either confused by the lighting and fly until exhaustion kills them, or become disoriented and collide with obsticles they cannot see for the glare. Also many animals hunting and sleeping cycles are disrupted by night lighting as well as the natual cycles in our own human bodies. There are many reasons for trying to control light pollution but leaving a sky full of stars for our children and grandchildrento view still rate as tops for me.

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      Doug Montgomery

      Nov 7, 2010 at 9:06am

      Perhaps the City of Vancouver could change a percentage of the "old Cobra Head" lights that is economicaly sound. My neighbourhood at 41st & Victoria Dr is almost impossible to view without optical aide.

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      Ron Jerome

      Nov 10, 2010 at 10:35am

      BC Hydro is currently running ads about the wasteful use of resources with their focus being energy. To make a meaningful impact they ought to be working with the biggest users. Cities must certainly be among them.

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      Phill Williams

      Nov 16, 2010 at 2:51pm

      Glare from innappropriate lighting is a big problem when driving, especially on wet nights. Vancouver may have bad spots, but so do other Lower Mainland municipalities. Most of what Elias wrote can be applied to those areas also.
      Great article bringing more awareness to a pollution issue that needs addressing.

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